Mister Rogers, the Asteroid

Kids' TV host immortalized in astronomy ledgers as namesake of Misterrogers, the asteroid formerly known as No. 26858

By Joal Ryan May 03, 2003 5:15 AMTags

Mister Rogers was not your ordinary star. The proof? Today, he is an asteroid.

The soft-spoken, sweater-wearing kids' TV host, who died February 27 of stomach cancer, has been immortalized in astronomy ledgers as the namesake of Misterrogers, the asteroid formerly known as Number 26858.

The designation was announced this week by the International Astronomical Union, the France-based organization responsible for naming the rocks and stuff that fly around in outerspace. (We paraphrase for the benefit of the science impaired.)

The story of Misterrogers, the asteroid, begins with John G. Radzilowicz, director of the Henry Buhl Jr. Planetarium & Observatory at the Carnegie Science Center in Fred Rogers' hometown of Pittsburgh. He submitted the nomination for the redesignation of Number 26858 the day Fred Rogers passed away at the age of 74.

Radzilowicz, who says he's just old enough to have missed being virtually raised in Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, the public-TV staple that ran for 34 years, thought Rogers worthy of a minor planet (the astrological name for asteroid) based on his work with children, in general, and his work in astronomy education, in particular.

Rogers produced the multimedia show, The Sky Above Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, for Buhl Planetarium in 2000. The program continues to run there and at other planetariums across the country.

In a Q&A on the Buhl Website, posted around the time of the show's debut, Rogers spoke of his longtime love of space and flight, noting how he earned his pilot wings as a high-schooler.

"I never lost my fascination with the sky," Rogers told the site. "In fact, one of my favorite 'elective' courses in college was Astronomy I. It's really exciting for me to be sharing my enthusiasm for the sky with children and their families."

Most asteroids are named after the astronomers who discover them, Radzilowicz explains. But when an astronomer is prolific--E.F. Helin discovered 113 minor planets, including Number 26858, between 1973-1994--his or her unnamed asteroids go into a pot whereby they eventually can be named after any person, living or dead, provided the International Astronomical Union grants approval.

This process is not to be confused with that private company that named a star after your Uncle Ed for Christmas.

"Those folks are the astronomical equivalent of a pet rock," Radzilowicz says. "...It means nothing. It's not legally binding. No astronomer will use it."

Not so in the case of Misterrogers. If by chance old Number 26858, currently in orbit in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, were to veer off course and head straight for Earth, newscasters would be correct to warn, "Misterrogers is coming!"

But fear not. "There's little to no chance of that happening," Radzilowicz says. "...We shouldn't be running into [that asteroid]."

Unfortunately, there's also little chance of you seeing Misterrogers with your handy-dandy sky-gazing equipment at home. The asteroid is just six to seven miles in diameter, meaning all but the most powerful telescopes will be able to capture it, Radzilowicz says. Buhl is considering taking a photo of Misterrogers and putting it on display in the planetarium, he says.

David Newell, the Neighborhood's own Mr. McFeeley, calls the naming of an asteroid after the beloved TV icon the "perfect" honor.

"Here's Mister Rogers revolving around all the neighborhoods now," says Newell, who also serves as spokesman for Rogers' still-operating production company, Family Communications.

The news of the Misterrogers asteroid comes as a Pittsburgh prepares Saturday for a public memorial service honoring its beloved civic figure and TV host.

The service, scheduled for 2:30 p.m. ET at Heinz Hall, will feature speeches by friends, colleagues and PBS President Pat Mitchell. The event will be covered live by Pittsburgh's WQED-TV and carried by about 50 percent of PBS affiliates across the country. A live audio Webcast of the event will be available at the WQED site.